Monday, 24 December 2012

What I Learnt At Atos

Today was our last BJJ session at Andre Galvao’s Atos Academy. We opted for the competition training. Something about the way we could have a four day break afterwards made us weirdly brave (not brave enough however, to have warmed up with the 10am class beforehand).

Two hours in we were more sweaty, exhausted and sore than we had previously thought humanly possible.

I had (accidentally) sampled a competition class before, on a day when Andy was injured, so was wise to the painful practices that went on in the 12-2pm slot (13 minute same-person-stays-on rodizios anyone?) but it still hurt.

Michael Liera Jr. pushed us through movements, specific sparring and speed drills in a manner that would have made Professor Galvao proud. Put it this way, at 12.45pm I felt utterly destroyed and like the class should definitely be winding down, and then we did another hour.

But as the Convoy Street part of our adventure draws to a close, I feel kind of sad.

I can’t speak personally for Andy (though having listened to me bang on every day on the bus trip home, he could probably speak for me) but our 11 week gatecrash of the Atos environment has taught me some amazing lessons. Even if I haven’t yet mastered that darn leg drag.

1) For a relatively small club, Atos has a disproportionately high number of world champions. We’re not talking “once got an honorary bronze at a local competition here”, we’re looking at several times a year, several years running at the top of the global podium.

Having watched those people train (and sampled the rate and precision with which they rip my limbs to pieces) it is a worthy result of hours and hours of drilling, every day of the week. You might just be touching hands on the mat, but mentally they have already passed your guard and secured 7 points, because they’ve done it 40 times at speed against every person in the class. Actually, mentally is the wrong word; they’ve done it so often it’s as automatic as breathing.

If you’re training for a competition with them, it’s amazing. If you’re up against them, be afraid, very, very afraid.

2) Given that disproportionate rate of world champions, you would expect to find one or two egos in the dojo. To be honest, if I even placed in the Worlds, I’d be wearing my medal to class every day. But you’d be wrong.

You’ll be able to identify the champions by the way they slice through your legs as if they were tissue paper, but bragging is kept very much on the downlow. And regardless of my very unchampionlike performances on the mat, everyone has gone out of their way to help me improve.

I think it’s a top-down result of having an eight times world champion with an obvious love of teaching and a devotion to his students’ wellbeing at the helm, but you get the feeling any progress you make is part of an overall victory for the club.

Which, given we could have just as easily been the BJJ equivalent of live mice fed to a tank full of snakes, is rather nice.

3) On the subject of winning, Atos fully endorses the “feel safe to make the mistakes during rolling” mentality.

People here spar hard, like they’re in a competition, but there is a distinct absence of douchebaggery, and no-one is going to mock or berate you if you try something and make a mess of it. The only mistake you can make is to just lie there, under those world champions, and stop trying.

If you score points or a submission, you’ll touch hands and start again. If they do, the same thing happens.

There’s a certain freedom in knowing it doesn’t matter if you have a bad day on the mats, and over the months I’ve seen myself slowly shifting from absolutely petrified, reactive defence lockdown to more practical defence, more continuous escape efforts and a submission attempt or two. This for me is big progress.

4) Respect is a big thing at Atos. Everyone works when Professor Galvao tells them to. Noone swears at each other or messes around.

But overall it’s a family environment (in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the word).

It’s not unusual to see Sarah, Andre and Angelica’s daughter, playing by the side of the mats, or with her dad before class. Many of the club members come as a family package and there’s hanging out across all age groups.

I’m not sure whether it’s because there are two brown belt women in regular attendance, or because Andre is so obviously enamoured by his wife, but as a woman I have never found anywhere as comfortable to train. Sleazy comments, pickup efforts, or antiquated “I don’t really want to go with a girl” putdowns are noticeably absent. I felt equal, if smaller and a bit naturally weaker, to any male student on the mat.

5) Jiu Jitsu is changing, it’s a fluid, ever-morphing commodity. We’ve all seen the traditional stand up guard passes and collar chokes, but there’s a whole world of new moves that are being invented to foil the old-school repertoire.

If you train at Atos, you’ll soon notice the predilection for close-range, seated moves, and inversion.

Well this week anyway (they’ve probably devised something more devious already).

We were in town just long enough to attend the Atos yearly grading, an event which even 27 x world champion Renato Laranja chose to rock with his presence. It ran an hour or so over time, and was filled with Professor Galvao’s proud stories of his students. And (in a completely unpredicted turn of events) both me and Andy picked up a first stripe for our purple belts.

Professor Galvao, Angelica, Chelsea, Mike Carbullido, Michael Liera Jr, Manny, Rick D, Matts Langford and Smith, Y J, Carlos, Jason, Sabara, Savannah…the list goes on and on, but I want to say one big collective thank you to everyone at Atos for making us feel so welcome, and helping to restore my interest and confidence in Jiu Jitsu. I’m very proud to wear that stripe, the t-shirt, and reflect your training in any way.

We only wish we could have stayed longer, and of course, we’re already busy saving for our subscription…

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A Mendes Minibreak

On 21st December, we fly back to the UK for Christmas.

Datewise though, our apartment is up on the 17th, when the new tenants take over. Our Atos gym membership runs out today, and our San Diego (crazy)bus passes are done by the weekend.

So for the last four days, we’ve decided to chuck everything up in the air again, and head up the coast to Costa Mesa, and the Art of Jiu Jitsu Academy.

For those who don’t know, this is the home of Rafael and Guiherme Mendes, berimbolo specialists and “new jiu jitsu” practitioners. Berimbolos and “new jiu jitsu” are exactly the kind of spankiness I’d love to be rocking on the mat, and whilst four days is barely long enough to watch in awe, let alone learn, we (me and Andy, not me and the Mendes) decided that coming back to the UK, only to look back and go “why didn’t we bother to take a trip up the road to the Mendes’ bros?” would be cause for regret.

They also work out of an all-white building, with paintings on the walls and a “white gi only” ruling, which is worth witnessing in person (even if my own practices are less artful).

As an added bonus, the Art of Jiu Jitsu Academy is also part of the Atos family, which bypasses that whole ungracious "pop in and train with you for two months, then head off to your competitor's school" faux pas.

In fact, plenty of the folk at Andre Galvao's academy have also experienced the Mendes first hand. Most of them have assured us that training there is "hard but great", though Manny's "it's like here, but there's two Andres watching over you so even less chance to slack off" has made our "twice a day, including the competition class" plans seem somewhat ominous.

So, the hire car is booked, we’ll be living in a Motel 6, and the only thing I need to do between now and then is brush up on the US highway code.

From walking/cycling around the Cali streets over the past couple of months, I assume this means you can run people over at will when turning right at the traffic lights, but I’d better check…

Friday, 7 December 2012

Blonde and Blonder

I mentioned back here how I was getting braver on the mats.

I couldn’t have predicted it, but the combination of gruelling training pace and endless supply of arse-kicking world champions is strangely liberating. Pretty soon you realise that there’s a place beyond “it’s over” (whether for hydration, exhaustion or depression reasons), a place where you carry on anyway. God knows it’s not skilled or pretty, but it definitely exists, and in a weird way I suspect it might be good for you.

And it’s an attitude that’s extended beyond the gym.

In typical chicken and egg fashion, it’s impossible to tell whether the training, or the chucking everything away and travelling across the planet to do it, kicked off the change, but I’m learning not to fall at the first hurdle. The inclination to chuck plans and schemes into the bin as soon as someone says “but wouldn’t that (insert concern here)…” is still very much ingrained, but I’m starting to take a step back, weigh up the options, and in a lot of cases, find a way around it. Or just do it anyway.

And post-tattoo, this mid-life rebellion has lead me straight to the bleach bottle.

For those that don’t know me personally, I’ve always been a dark creature. By birth brunette, I had a brief wash-in plum phase in my twenties, and have spent the last decade or so with jet black locks. Personality-wise too, I’ve proudly erred away from traditional “girly” and towards the alternative.

So, in no particular order, here are the reasons I shouldn’t go blonde:

1) I have so much black dye in my hair, it’s going to take several bleaching sessions to get it up to the colour I want it (ideally platinum, but will settle for that light “inside of a banana” colour they so rave about on hair websites.)

2) During that process, my hair could go dark red, bright orange, and dark blonde, none of which are colours that I aspire to.

3) It will totally fry the condition and my bank balance.

4) Having big, heavy boys, and smaller, technical girls, hang off my head in BJJ isn’t going to help that.

5) Nothing in my makeup/wardrobe/demeanor matches a sunny yellow-headed type.

So, those are the reasons why not to. Weighing up the “for” options:

1) Ever since I wore a light wig at a fancy dress party, and boys were especially nice to me for 15 minutes, I’ve wondered if the blonder types really do have more fun.

2) In addition, I have an instant crush on anyone rocking the punky blonde thing.

3) Whilst not cheap, it is substantially cheaper to go to the hairdressers repeatedly in California than in London.

4) Andy and an entire school-full of BJJ folk are the only people who will see me whilst I’m transitioning. No rocking up at the office with ever-changing fuzz on my barnet.

5) I’m going grey anyway, so “natural” isn’t really an option anymore.

A more sensible person would probably have seen a bit of shakiness in some of the “pros” but heck, sensible people don’t generally jet off around the world on a whim. Bring on the peroxide.

So far, I have spent about 8 hours in the hairdressers (4.5 hours the first time, 3.5 hours the second). I have had several turkeys’ worth of tinfoil layered all over my head in varying different patterns. I somehow skipped the deep red phase, but landed slap bang in carrot orange territory. And I am possibly paying for my hairdresser’s soon-to-be-born child to go through college.

The results? Well, the first time I had it done, I jumped every time I saw myself in a mirror. Despite living in the land of the blondes, I still feel like I’m subconsciously shouting “look at me, look at me” just by walking down the street. After a lifetime in the shade, the bright side is a bit of a shock to the system. And I’m now eying those neon items in my wardrobe with caution.

There’s one more bleaching session to go, next Friday. Before then, I need to get some moisture back into my frazzled hair – which means most evenings are spent plastered in goo and residing under a shower cap (lucky Andy).

Any initial shyness at unveiling a whole new hair colour twice at the gym will soon be overruled by my needing to wear a lycra swimming hat during sparring – at best, my hair ends up looking like this post-training, at worst it’s been shedding all over the mat.

Some days I love it, some days it bugs the hell out of me, but this trip is all about getting braver and breaking free of some of those “I can’t possibly…” patterns.

I’ll keep you updated.